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Attorney General

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 14 April 2016

The Attorney General was asked—

Rape and Serious Sexual Offences

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to improve its response to cases involving rape allegations and other forms of serious sexual offending. It has taken a number of steps to improve the conviction rate, which includes increasing the number of specialist staff within its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences unit and improved specialist training for prosecutors.

Despite claims that we have the highest ever number of convictions, conviction rates for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual abuses have fallen in the past two years. How does the Minister intend to rectify that situation?

The hon. Gentleman rightly points to the fact that the actual number of convictions continues to increase, which means justice for more and more victims. It is right that the Crown Prosecution Service brings cases to juries, and, of course, it is a matter for juries to determine whether a suspect is guilty. Increased funding for the rape and serious sexual offences units means an improved early engagement with the police so that the experience of victims becomes a better one, and we have tried and tested evidence that the experience of victims is vital if we are to make improvements.

Part of improving the evidence of victims is surely through the increased use of live links, which we are already seeing, where victims do not physically have to come to the court building to give their evidence. The report published this week by the CPS inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recognises that. It says that, in some areas, the scheme is doing very well, but, in others

“the courts and the CPS were not comfortable with live links even though the video technology was available.”

What more can be done to spread consistency in its uptake?

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight that important report. In places such as Kent, best practice is clearly being demonstrated. With regard to national training, which is happening now, we will see more and more use of live links from victims’ homes and other safe places to avoid the terrible ordeal in many cases of victims having to come to court to give evidence in the courtroom.

Providing effective and compassionate support for victims and survivors of sexual violence is pivotal to ensuring that more of these heinous crimes are reported in the first place, and, ultimately, that more offenders are brought to justice. Will the Minister tell me how the Government intend to improve victim and witness care within the criminal justice system?

The hon. Lady may already know that revised guidance to prosecutors and Crown Prosecution Service staff about victim and witness care in the courts is already being rolled out. There are also more staff in the court system to help and support witnesses and victims through the process. More work is being done and will be done to ensure that the objectives that she and I share are met.

Will the Solicitor General join me in welcoming the recent violence against women and girls statistics, which show that more cases than ever before are being charged, prosecuted and convicted?

I certainly welcome those statistics. Importantly, they make the point that, when it comes to people’s lives, more and more individuals are finding that their cases are being heard and that justice is being done on the perpetrators of these appalling offences.

What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly about the possibility of extending Clare’s law to the Province, particularly in the light of the revelation from Women’s Aid that six murders in Northern Ireland had links with domestic abuse?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important innovation of Clare’s law, which was introduced in the last Government. I was a key supporter of that legislation. I would be happy to have discussions with colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, it is a matter that, quite properly, has been devolved, but if it would help, I will of course hold those discussions.

European Arrest Warrant

2. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the use of the European arrest warrant as a prosecutorial tool of the UK leaving the EU. (904462)

5. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the use of the European arrest warrant as a prosecutorial tool of the UK leaving the EU. (904465)

The European arrest warrant makes it easier to extradite foreign suspects to where they are wanted for crimes and to bring suspects back to the UK to face justice for crimes committed here. It is the quickest and most economical way to do these things, and other member states would not be bound to co-operate with us in the same way if we left the EU.

The first piece of European legislation that I sat on in a delegated legislation Committee was a regulation that enabled us to track paedophiles more easily across different European countries. Why anybody would wish to end that kind of co-operation between European countries is beyond me. Does the Attorney General agree that the Brexit campaign is soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime?

I have great respect for those who argue for a British exit from the European Union, but I am afraid that I believe they are wrong on this. For the reasons the hon. Gentleman has given, there is considerable advantage to Britain and to British citizens in being part of the European arrest warrant.

Just to be clear, does the Attorney General think that if we were no longer part of the European arrest warrant, criminals from the continent would see Britain as a safe haven because of the extradition arrangements and the concern that they would not be taken back quickly?

There is no doubt that the quickest and easiest way of deporting criminals who face prosecutions in other European nations is, as I said, to use the European arrest warrant. Of course, those who argue for exit from the European Union would have to explain what alternative measures they would put in place to achieve the same objective. I am in no doubt that, as I say, the quickest and easiest way to do that is through the European arrest warrant, and any delay in that process will have very serious consequences.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend’s position take account of the European Court of Justice ruling on 5 April, which effectively drives a coach and horses through the whole of the arrest warrant procedure because it makes it clear that the European Court of Justice is in charge of whether or not a European arrest warrant can be applied for?

I do not think that it is quite as bad as my hon. Friend suggests. In fact, what the European Court of Justice said in that case is broadly consistent with what our own Extradition Act 2003 says. He will know, of course, that in respect of the countries mentioned in that judgment, we already succeed in extraditing people to them. One of them is Romania, and my hon. Friend might like to know that 268 people have been extradited to Romania since 2010.

In the Witney Gazette, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying about the European arrest warrant:

“Some other countries in Europe do not have our rights and safeguards. People can languish in jail for weeks without even being charged. I am not sure that the British people realise what is being done in their name. Are we really happy that with one telephone call from the Greek, Spanish or German authorities alleging that we did something wrong on holiday, we can be swept off to a continental prison? Rights and safeguards that we have enjoyed for centuries are being stripped away.”

Does the Attorney General agree with the Prime Minister?

I do not know when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote that. As my hon. Friend may recall, the Prime Minister and other members of the Government successfully negotiated changes to the European arrest warrant precisely to deal with the problems that my hon. Friend has just outlined. Now, UK citizens cannot be extradited unless the case is trial ready, and not unless the conduct in question would be a crime here and not unless it is proportionate to do so.

CPS: International Co-operation

3. What steps the CPS is taking to work more efficiently with international partners to reduce the threat of serious crime in the UK and abroad. (904463)

CPS prosecutors work closely with law enforcement agencies to give investigative advice and to prosecute serious crime. They draw upon international co-operation agreements wherever necessary to secure evidence and to agree how and where cases that cover various jurisdictions should be pursued.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer, but what are the Government doing to ensure that IRA terrorists are being brought back to the UK to face justice here?

I assure my hon. Friend that cases involving IRA suspects will be considered in just the same way as any other case. The special crime and counter-terrorism division of the CPS deals with cases of alleged terrorism. If a suspect is out of the jurisdiction, extradition will be considered if the prosecution evidential co-test is met.

I hope that the Solicitor General has seen that yet another accused criminal has fled to Pakistan this week. Is it not a fact that we need greater European co-operation because we have no extradition treaty with Pakistan? Where a serious crime has been committed, the perpetrator too often flees to Pakistan—and however heinous the crime, we cannot bring them back.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I mentioned multi-jurisdictional cases. Sometimes these perpetrators will cover more than one EU country and it is vital to have the mechanisms not just of co-operation, but of enforcement, which our membership of the EU guarantees. That is why I am a very strong supporter of remaining within the European Union.

EU Withdrawal: Changes to UK Legal Framework

Under article 50 of the treaty on the European Union, if the United Kingdom were to decide to leave the EU, it would need to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the remaining member states, setting out the arrangements for withdrawal. The EU treaties would continue to apply to the UK until the article 50 agreement entered into force or for two years if no agreement were reached and no extension to that period were granted. Any further changes to the UK’s legal obligations would of course depend on the nature of any further international agreements entered into.

Newcastle has a thriving legal services sector with many internationally renowned firms as well as two excellent degree courses at our universities. Does the Attorney General agree that leaving the European Union would mean that we would face years of uncertainty and confusion over our legal framework, which would necessarily undermine the success of our legal and financial services sectors?

First, I should say that I have boundless faith in the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of our legal professions, and I am sure that they would find a way through. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that there would be considerable uncertainty after any departure from the European Union, at least in part because there is a regulatory structure in this country that substantially depends on European regulation. We would have to decide how much of that to keep and how much we wished to change. She might also know that Professor Derek Wyatt, one of the leading experts on European law, recently gave evidence to the House of Lords European Union Committee. He said that

“it will take years for Government and Parliament to examine the corpus of EU law and decide what to jettison and what to keep”.

That is one of the reasons the Government believe that we are better off remaining within the EU.

Given my right hon. and learned Friend’s immense legal brain and huge legal capabilities, will he confirm to the House that he would want to remain as Attorney General should this country vote to leave the European Union so that he personally would be best placed to negotiate a super-duper British exit agreement in double-quick time?

I have nowhere near my hon. Friend’s faith in my abilities, but I do think that it remains in Britain’s best interests to stay within the European Union. However, if the British people decide that we should leave, the British Government will continue to do their best for the British public.

I hope that the Attorney General of all people will not underestimate the scope of his scholarly cranium, because the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) clearly does not do so.

A condition of our membership of the European Union is that we are also a signatory to the European convention on human rights. Can the Attorney General confirm that this Government are committed to remaining a signatory to the convention and not to join Belarus, the only European country that is not a signatory?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s first statement is entirely correct, but the Government’s intention is nevertheless clear: we are not seeking to leave the convention but we are seeking to construct a better and more sensible arrangement on human rights law in this country. We do not think that the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Human Rights is always sensible, and we wish to see a good deal more common sense being brought into human rights law. I regret that that opinion is not shared by Her Majesty’s Opposition.

I appreciate that the Attorney General’s hands are tied somewhat, in that nobody in the Vote Leave campaign has been clear about what we would be leaving to, but surely his officials will have made some assessment of the amount of legislative time that would be taken up by this Parliament trying to unpick 43 years of our involvement in European laws, rules and regulations.

I have just quoted the remarks of Professor Wyatt when he gave evidence in the other place. There is no doubt that considerable time and effort would be required in those circumstances. Of course it is difficult to be specific, because it would rather depend on what alternative arrangements were sought, post-departure from the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is right to say the onus is on those who wish to leave to explain what the world would be like if we did so.

This is very simple to explain. What it would mean is that this Parliament and our courts would take back control of our human rights legislation. It is a simple matter. Does the Attorney General agree?

The human rights laws within European law are extremely limited. The charter of fundamental rights within the European Union law canon does not create new rights and, as my hon. Friend knows, the European convention on human rights is a separate institution. He is wrong to suggest that this would be simple in any way; it would be extraordinarily complicated and take a very long time.

Internet Trolling and Online Abuse

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse. (904467)

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse on social media; and if he will make a statement. (904468)

The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its publicly available social media guidelines. They are subject to a current consultation, which will result in the publication of finalised guidelines on serious offences later in the year.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the effect of online abuse on mental health can be damaging, particularly among young people? Will he urge the social media sector to engage with the CPS and other agencies to root out poor behaviour and signpost the support that is available to victims in law?

Online abuse can sometimes be worse than face-to-face abuse, because it is all-pervading and does not end at the school gates or allow for privacy at home. The Director of Public Prosecutions has met several social media providers, and the CPS will continue to work with them on measures to improve the reporting and prosecution of such abuse.

Even I have been trolled on Twitter. I do not know whether it was Momentum or someone else, but people have doubted the provenance of my hair. Can you believe that?

However, a friend of mine has a young son of 16 who has also been trolled on Twitter. He did not take it as lightly as I do and the poor boy has harmed himself, which is a serious matter. I was interested to hear the Solicitor General’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), but what steps can we take to deter young people from bullying other young people on Twitter, Facebook and other social media?

I am naturally reticent to trespass upon the bailiwick of my hon. Friend’s hair, so I will confine my remarks to the serious issue he raised about the mental health impacts on young people. Work is being done on training so that CPS prosecutors can enable victims and users to report abuse and, in particular, to ensure that offending content can be removed by providers.

What action is being taken in schools in conjunction with the Department for Education to try to curtail the amount of online abuse aimed at young people?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a massive amount of work is being done by not only the Department for Education, but the third sector on cyber-bullying and its effects on young people. The combined approach that is being taken in schools the length and breadth of the country is not only alerting young people to the dangers, but empowering them to make complaints, so that they do not have to suffer in silence.

EU Withdrawal: Effects on Human Rights

Through the European Union, the UK amplifies its work to promote and protect democracy around the world, increasing the UK’s influence on a range of issues. When 28 member states speak out against the most serious violations of human rights, that can help to set the agenda at the UN and other international organisations. That is a valuable way in which the UK can promote its values.

The EU charter reflects wider international standards and obligations that the UK has a history of championing. By moving away from it, we risk undermining human rights and respect for international law. What advice does the Attorney General have about the weakening of legal human rights safeguards that could follow?

If the hon. Lady is referring to the European Union charter of fundamental rights, it does not create new rights for British citizens, as made clear in protocol 30 of the Lisbon treaty, so there would be no significant consequence of departure in that way. However, there is a considerable advantage to the UK in communicating its views and aspirations on human rights protection not just in this country, but abroad, if we were no longer able to act through the medium of the European Union, as we do through other international organisations.

The Secretary of State for Justice recently told the Select Committee on Justice that, as far he was concerned, the framework of human rights across the UK was a reserved matter. Given that the Attorney General advises the Government on legal issues, will he explain why the Government’s view is that the human rights framework is reserved when it is not included in the exhaustive list of reservations in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the Government’s view and mine that any change to the Human Rights Act 1998 as a piece of legislation is not a devolved matter—it is a reserved matter. That is the issue on which my right hon. Friend will shortly be bringing forward proposals.

The shadow Attorney General, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), cannot be with us today because he is busy changing nappies. May we congratulate him on the birth of his first baby, a beautiful daughter, Stella-Mae? We wish him and his partner, Leanne, all the best.

Does the Attorney General agree that if the UK left the EU, it would not only be human rights in Scotland that would be affected? Surely there would be a question over the whole devolution process in Wales and Northern Ireland. We should not forget that the agreement that gave us the institutions in Northern Ireland took membership of the EU as a given, and if the UK left the EU, it would lead to unwelcome uncertainties.

May I begin by adding to the hon. Lady’s congratulations to the shadow Attorney General on the new arrival in his household? We wish them all well. May I also congratulate her on taking on her new, temporary, but none the less important, responsibilities at the Dispatch Box? On her question, she knows, because she has heard me say it many times before, that I take the view that the protection of human rights in this country can perfectly adequately be undertaken by the British Government and by British courts. However, there is no doubt that were we to leave the European Union, a range of complexities would follow, not all of which we have discussed. There is no doubt in my mind that because of those additional complexities and because, on balance, I think there is huge advantage to Britain in remaining in the EU, that is the right decision for us to take.

Prosecutions for Offshore Tax Evasion

All tax evasion prosecutions are conducted under domestic tax law and no distinction is made in central records between offshore tax evasion cases and other tax prosecutions, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the total number of convictions since 2010 for tax offences is 2,647.

I am grateful for that answer, but the Attorney General will now know, through the revelations in the Panama papers, that industrial-scale money is going offshore. What role will his Department be playing in advising the Prime Minister’s taskforce on that tax evasion? Does the Attorney General expect any illegality to come out in that review? If so, what resources does he have to ensure that prosecutions take place?

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the Serious Fraud Office, an agency that I superintend, is contributing to that taskforce, and £10 million of new money is available to support the work of the taskforce. As he would expect me to say, the question of who, if anyone, gets prosecuted as a result of that work is not for politicians, but for independent prosecutors, to determine. I am confident that the Crown Prosecution Service and the SFO have the resources they need to pursue this. As he will also know, the Government are providing additional tools by which that can be done, including the creation of new offences, both for individuals and for corporate entities that fail to take the necessary action to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion.

Tax evasion is not a victimless crime, and tax avoidance also has consequences. Both take money out of our hard-pressed public services and away from the people who work in them. This money could be used to fund more police, hospitals, schools and other local services, all of which have had severe cuts under this Government. There is a growing tax gap, and there have been a very limited number of prosecutions. How can the public therefore be confident that the Government are doing everything they can to crack down on overseas tax evaders, given the performance to date?

I do not accept that the performance to date has been ineffective. As I have explained, there have been successful prosecutions of those who evade tax. As the hon. Lady will know, it is not simply criminal prosecution that exists in order to take action against those who avoid or evade tax; civil penalties are also available to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and they bring in a substantial amount of money as a result of the actions that that agency takes. She is right about there always being more to do, which is why I highlighted two particular measures in the field of enforcement and criminal prosecutions that this Government are taking, and I look forward to the Labour party’s support for them.